Impostor Syndrome

Neil Gaiman has a cute story about talking to someone else being recognized at a dinner, who wasn’t sure what he was doing there. To which Neil Gaiman replied, “But you were the first man on the moon. Surely that counts for something?” Armstrong replied he just went where he was sent.

Here’s the thing: Neil Armstrong was right.

I don’t think it’s a bad thing to feel deep disquiet that a thousand engineers put a man on the moon and to act as if the man who set foot on the moon is the important part of that story. I don’t think it’s wrong when writers feel a deep disquiet about being on the cover of a book when they know how much their agent did, how much their editors did, how much booksellers did, and how much was up to chance. That is, again, clarity.

Armstrong didn’t just feel uncomfortable because he was being patted on the head for something he had a small part of. Armstrong could go collect a several thousand dollar check for speaking anywhere up until his death. That’s a privilege almost nobody else on earth can swing.

On the way up in any field, especially writing, you will inevitably meet people as talented as you are who absolutely could have been in your position but aren’t. They got sick. A family member got sick. They’re marginalized. Their book idea was risky, and so publishers decided to go with a similar book from someone who can’t write as well but is a little whiter / younger / less marginalized. Just getting to be an expert in something means you become intimately aware of how deserving success has little to do with success.

I  don’t want to point the all-blaming finger at liberalism’s emphasis on individualism. I mean, yes, of course, that’s a root cause, and I’ll note it here. We tend to see Tesla as Elon Musk’s success despite all evidence he’s a dip who was born rich. He spends his way out of being an outright incompetent project manager who speaks dumb ideas into a tape recorder all day and then passes them along to a team who can do all the work on the promising ideas. If he’s not responsible for his success, we look around for the one person who is, and seeing it’s the work of several thousand people, just land back on the self-made man theory. Capitalism’s emphasis on individualism does a great job of hiding that our designated figureheads could be switched out with any given stoner frat boy without a hitch. And the rare self-aware rich stoner frat boy knows it.

I’m personally more baffled by the impulse to note a common source of discomfort and to declare it always self-destructive, always just anxiety with nothing behind it.

There’s a second part to the anxiety, which I’ll illustrate in this way: most rich people continue hoarding wealth, which makes little sense. With a million dollars invested (which is a rare amount of money), you could, theoretically, live a very modest life without ever working again. However, another figure: half of us will get cancer. The bill for cancer treatment can easily exceed a million dollars. Households are typically made up of more than two people. Name a dozen other diseases, or a complicated pregnancy for a family member, or a disability in the family, or just elder care, and that money is gone fast.

So there’s this tension, where someone can be among the wealthiest people on the damn planet, literally an idle capitalist, and that wealth is still extremely precarious. That doesn’t make them not wealthy. That doesn’t make them not capitalists. It just lets them conflate that precarity, potential need, with actual need. It’s how this graphic made sense to anyone:


How much worse it is for people who have no wealth, whose daily bread relies on external things like their popularity, and chance, and a network of strangers who’ll promote them? Some of the anxiety in imposer syndrome is an expression of that precarity. Writers, even bestselling ones, don’t make a whole hell of a lot. The average income for a working writer is about 20k. If they’re self-published, halve that. Million-dollar book deals aren’t an everyday thing. So a lot of well-known creators are both in an unstable position which they’re privileged to be in and also don’t make what a Wal Mart greeter makes.

So I don’t think I’ll get imposer syndrome. Of course, if I am ever very successful as a writer, I’ll be aware of my precarity. But what I “deserve” is a funny framework. I personally think society only works when everyone (literally everyone) gets what we need and not what we deserve.

So keep making the art and keep in mind, you didn’t make this system, and you can dismantle it. Don’t feel guilty about getting paid. Don’t feel guilty about getting paid well, even. Just use your power, if you get any, to dismantle this bullshit.

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